Sunday, 24 May 2009

"Yes, but is it Art?"

James Bulger: Tortured and Murdered at the age of two by two ten-year-old boys

I'm going to get straight to the point with this one. I read a few days back that a play had been written about the murder of James Bulger, back in the early 90s, and was to open in one of the theatres in my home town of Hackney, London. According to the BBC article, Monsters, originally written in Swedish by the playwright Niklas Radstrom and translated for the UK, is an attempt to study "the profound moral and social impact of the murder". The article also asks the question "is the case a suitable subject for theatre?"

Well, the answer is yes. As far as any piece of art is honest and well-thought out, it is valid. It may not suit the sensibilities of an individual viewer, reader, audience-member or whatever form the recipient of the artwork takes, but that is irrelevant: sensibilities and reactions are matters of taste and not indicators of validity. The question of what constitutes art, and in turn, how to classify the good and the bad art, has had everyone from academics to street cleaners debating for as long as the concept of art became etched in our collective idea of societal contructs. The fact that this particular story is real and memorable makes it no less worth examining through the theatre. Some might even argue that these factors are precisely why they ought to be examined.

What happened to James Bulger was shocking and made even more disturbing by the discovery of his murderers, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, both aged ten at the time. However, just because of these details, should we prohibit any representation of this type of crime? The holocaust is OK, but not child murder?

The article goes into some detail about the staging and adaptation of the story. After reading it, it seems pretty difficult to see why the play is not valid. Firstly, all the characters are played by four adult actors: adults, fully capable of understanding the severity of the case being reproduced, and each of whom - it is hoped - have worked on their performances enough to ensure they avoid anything too extreme or gratuitous. Plays aren't just written and then performed without any thought - even though ome are so bad they may seem so. Rehearsal is a process which not only irons out anything the performers feel is unnecessary, but also allows for an exploration of the ways the play can be performed in front of paying customers.

Secondly, and this I discovered by doing further research, the play is written using transcripts of police interviews with the two boys and members of their families, as well as those of the victim and other individuals relating to the case. This style of play is called "verbatim", for obvious reasons, being that it takes the actual words documented by the people involved, and is presented in a script, giving the director and cast the freedom to interpret the words as they please, but not to change any. If someone who watches the play is offended by anything said by a character, they cannot blame anyone but the real person who said it.

Thirdly, to those who may claim the writer, director, actors, or whoever else involved in the production are merely doing this for selfish reasons ("to make money" and "a name for themselves," as one critic of the project puts it), one should ask oneself why and how would this advance any of their careers. Other than by showing that they are capable of sensitively treating a subject most of us would prefer never to even think about, I don't see any benefits of doing this. It is highly unlikey a film or television series will come of it. When people cry "exploitation" and "cynicism", note that they are often the ones to run to the nearest public opinion-controlling media ready to make their own voices heard: how much more exploitative and cynical can you be than that? Indeed, the play touches on "the sensationalism that pervades some media coverage of the story," according to the director Chris Haydon.

Art forms can be and often are entertaining; but there is no rule dictating that every audience member should leave satisfied and happy. Life is not always fun, so why should art and entertainment be?

Screenshot from Spielberg's Schindler's List - I don't hear people saying the Holocaust is an unsuitable subject for exploration through art forms...

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